Interview with Rochelle King

In advance of the Leading Design conference in London on the 24th-26th October, I caught up with Rochelle King to discuss her background, experience and thoughts on the subject of Design Leadership.

Tell us about your first design leadership role? Who did you model yourself on?

My first design leadership role was way back in 2000. It was at a time when those of us who were in start-ups were mostly “learning by doing” because the industry felt so new. Because I’ve always learned best by working directly with someone, and because I happened to have a great manager at that time, I would say most of what I was learning about leadership was from my manager.

What does a typical day look like for you? Is it all meetings?

Unfortunately, my days ARE typically filled with meetings. I’ve started to get into the habit of “protecting” a couple of spots during the week where I get to focus on thinking and work, but it can often be hard to do that. One nice thing about my schedule though, is that because I work with a lot of different teams and people, the meetings that I DO have tend to be pretty varied. That way, even if I have a solid day of meetings, it feels like I’m getting exposed to a lot of different parts of the company and not getting stuck in just one area for too long. I also purposely carve out 3–4 hours a week which I preserve for having 1–1’s with everyone in my larger organization. Because my department is now just over 150 people, it takes me a few months to cycle through everyone in the team, but I find these meetings really valuable. They give me a good and different perspective on what’s going on in the company which I don’t always get from my direct reports.

What are the qualities of a good design leader?

I think that anyone in a leadership position should be able to provide good business and strategic context for the people on their team. Design leaders at all levels also need to be able to help bridge the gap between design and the business, explaining the role, value and impact of design to the people who aren’t designers themselves. Depending on how mature or experienced the team is that you’re leading, you’ll also find that you are either providing the team with direction and inspiration for their work OR you might find that they are instead providing you with inspiration which you then need to amplify and advocate for.

What is the design culture like in your current company?

We’ve been growing really rapidly as a design team, so that means that it feels like we are constantly in transition. To that end, our culture has been focused on pioneering what design can mean for Spotify. And because of that, we’re always looking for people who are comfortable with being a pioneer. Sometimes that’s exciting and empowering because you’re defining the path of what you want design to be, but sometimes (just like being a pioneer) it can be frustrating when we stumble into challenges that we hadn’t anticipated.

When I joined Spotify just under 4 years ago, I think there were about 10 folks doing design. We now have over 60 people who are part of the design organization and if we include user researchers and analysts, we are closer to 90. Over that time, we added new skills to our area (like content strategy, prototyping and specialists in areas like motion) so each time we do that, we need to work to establish how we integrate these different aspects into the experience and the product development process. Like many other design teams at other companies, I think that having a bigger presence has helped to make us more influential and strategic but we continually strive to make sure that design has the impact on our users and business that we want it to have. We’re also very cognizant of the fact that we can’t build great experiences without strong partnerships with our counterparts in tech and product, so part of our culture is not just about design, but also about how we can work across multiple disciplines.

What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

Since I was just talking about our rapid growth, one of the challenges there is about preserving some of the closeness and spirit that we had as a team when it was smaller. As designers, we often do our best work when we feel supported and safe enough to take some risks. Therefore, feeling like you can really count on your teammates to provide that for you is important. Also, because we want the experience to feel consistent and seamless to our users, we need designers who are working on different parts of the experience to feel comfortable reaching out to each other even when the sit in different offices or in different teams. Having strong relationships with each other is a big part of what makes all of that work. To help bridge that gap as we grow, we are working to find ways to come together as a design team. We have “fika” (the Swedish word for coffee breaks) in each of our offices and we have larger gatherings (“Design Days”) where we bring together everyone working on design from all four offices in one location to bond as a team.

What are you most proud of achieving as a design leader?

For me, it’s never been about a big launch or a specific feature that we released. I’m always most proud as a leader when I get to witness my team performing at their best and seeing them be proud of something that they accomplished.

Any advice for a new design leader?

I’ve always grown the most when I had a strong mentor, so I would seek out someone that you could use as a coach and sounding board as you take on leadership. Also, you don’t need to have just one mentor. You might find that you can lean on certain people for one sort of problem, but lean on others for a different one. That way you get to take advantage of the best that any one person might have to offer across a variety of situations. I would think back to the people that you learned the most from or who challenged you the most and see what qualities they had which helped you develop and think about how you can do the same for your team.